The Americans Who Embraced Mussolini

Historians in the News
tags: political history, Mussolini, fascism

The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism
Katy Hull
Princeton University Press, $35 (cloth)

On the eve of the November 1938 midterm elections, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a forceful radio address. “If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens,” he remarked, “then Fascism and Communism . . . will grow in strength in our land.” While opposition to communism was a standard current in U.S. politics, the rise of American sympathy with fascism had become an urgent concern for Roosevelt. Among the most visible sympathizers of the time was the anti-Semitic radio broadcaster Charles Coughlin, who regularly reached tens of millions of listeners, but Roosevelt and his administration knew fascist sympathy was diffuse among prominent Americans. From Henry Ford to the esteemed, path-blazing New York Times foreign correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick, expressions of fascist sympathy had reached the center of mainstream discourse and American political thought by the late 1930s. 

It is intriguing to revisit this history in light of conversations about fascism today. How did an ideology that relished violence, dictatorship, and illiberal communitarianism animate so many different people in a country whose founding myths extolled individualism and self-government? What led these Americans to admire fascism and even suggest it was the logical successor to democracy? The historian Katy Hull’s new book, The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism, is a welcome study of these questions, examining the intellectual legitimation of fascism in the United States in the interwar period.

In lean, eloquent prose, Hull weaves together the intellectual and status-seeking journeys of four Americans: the conservative ambassador to Italy (1921–1924) and writer Richard Washburn Child, the political philosopher Herbert Wallace Schneider, the Italian-American newspaper publisher Generoso Pope, and McCormick herself. Hull takes these four figures as representative of common threads of fascist sympathy in the United States. Their sympathy flowed from different social and political moorings, but as Hull explains, all thought that the United States, coming into full force as a world power, lacked the political leadership required “to make democracy relevant, to manage the pace of industrialization, and to support those who felt left behind in the modern world.” Italian fascism stood for them as an appealing model, yoking together communitarian values and national progress in a way that had eluded American government.

This American fascination arose in part from fascism’s view of national struggle. As scholars such as Robert O. Paxton and Sheri Berman have noted, Italian fascism did not emerge as a sui generis authoritarian ideology and, in the beginning, was not explicitly premised on extreme racism, in contrast to German National Socialism. Its origins both reflected and drew upon a mélange of ideas and appeals based on conservatism, worker-led social transformation, economic development, and revolutionary nationalism. However, nationalism became the centerpiece shortly after World War I began, when a breakaway strain of syndicalists—who had agitated for syndicates, or worker cooperatives, in place of capitalist production—joined with leftwing nationalists and ex-socialists such as Benito Mussolini, the movement’s future leader, to demand Italy join the Allies. Together they rejected both liberalism and international class solidarity. Prewar fervor to transform Italy’s class structure was thus transposed to a vision of cross-class struggle for national prestige and wealth. What mattered most was Italy’s position in international politics and the global economy, and national solidarity was the solution.

Read entire article at Boston Review

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